FORT KENT, Maine — Forget the image of a hapless Bob Cratchit huddled next to a small stove, scuttle in hand, stoking the boiler with his meager coal rations under a thick cloud of black smoke.

Today’s coal-fired furnaces burn hotter, cleaner and more efficiently than their Dickensian predecessors in addition to being less expensive to run than oil and less labor-intensive than firewood, Fort Kent businessman Robert Berube said.

Berube was so convinced last summer he retrofitted his warehouse and garage with a 260,000 Btu anthracite coal furnace.

Soon afterward, he became a dealer for the units.

“I started out looking at the cost of going to coal a couple of years ago,” said Berube, the northern Maine broker for New York-based HAPCO Farms. “When you look at the numbers you see some big differences.”

One ton of coal is equivalent to 200 gallons of home heating oil, which is selling for $3.74 a gallon statewide.

That works out to $748 versus Berube’s cost of $291 per ton of coal.

“That’s a savings, right there,” he said. “You are looking at some big differences.”

Given that a typical northern Maine household can run through 1,000 gallons of oil in a heating season, it’s no wonder many are listening to what Berube has to say.

And he has done his research.

A ton of coal equals 1.7 tons of wood pellets, which are averaging around $279 a ton, and equals 1.4 cords of firewood, which is ranging in price around the state from $250 to $285 a cord.

Berube said he spent $10,000 heating his warehouse and garage with oil last year. This year, with coal, he estimated his heating costs at $1,750.

“It’s really a no-brainer,” Berube said. “That unit will heat my garage, warehouse and office building without breaking a sweat.”

The unit is also plumbed to heat his water.

Berube’s furnace is made in Pennsylvania by the family-owned Axeman-Anderson Co.

He says the $11,557 price tag looks a bit hefty at first, but points out it will have paid itself off in less than two years.

A smaller, 130,000-Btu model for home use retails for $9,000.

The steel stove sits in a corner of Berube’s large garage near the overhead door.

A wooden bin holding 6 tons of coal sits next to the furnace that is automatically fed by an auger system. Dust and ash are automatically drawn into an ash container that Berube checks on a regular basis.

Some environmentalists remain opposed to any form of coal for heating purposes because of the carbon dioxide emissions.

But Berube said, “It’s a clean fuel.”

Walking around the building and pointing to the chimney, he said, “Do you see any smoke coming out of there?”

Anthracite coal, Berube said, burns incredibly clean with none of the thick smoke and ash associated with the coal-burning factories in the Midwest or even the wood furnaces in Maine.

“There is no creosote in coal,” Berube said. “It burns hot and clean.”

Because the coal arrives already bagged on pallets, Berube simply dumps the coal into the bin and never has to touch it again.

“This stove was easy to install,” he said. “It took maybe a day for a plumber to run the lines to put it in.”

Berube is purchasing coal from Penn Keystone Coal Co. in Claysburg, Pa., by the truckload to supply the dozen or so homes and businesses that have purchased Axeman-Anderson stoves through him.

In addition to the “pea coal” used in his furnace, Berube also is selling “nut coal” which is larger and can be used to supplement firewood in wood burners.

Berube says there is a great deal of interest in the stoves and he has a 16-week waiting list for new units.

“It’s getting cold up here [and] people are pushing me for their furnaces,” Berube said. “People in northern Maine will have to find a different ways to heat, like coal, or they won’t be able to stay.”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.